At a picnic table in a dry grass field, a group of elementary-school students watched as the high-school senior Xavier Baty, a broad-shouldered 18-year-old in a camouflage ball cap and scuffed work boots, attached a hand-size solar panel cell to a small motor connected to a fan. He held the panel to face the setting Colorado sun, adjusting its angle to vary the fan speed.
“Want to hear a secret?” he asked the kids around him. “This is the only science class I ever got an A in.”
As he readily acknowledges, Baty hasn’t been the most enthusiastic science student at Delta High School. This class, however, is different. Along with a group of other seniors and a few juniors, Baty is enrolled in “Solar Energy Training.” The class not only provides a science credit needed for graduation; it also trains students for careers in solar energy or the electrical trades. It allows Baty to work with his hands, something he enjoys, while positioning him for employment in a fast-growing industry.
In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, solar energy—along with a strong organic-farm economy and recreation dollars—is helping to fill the economic hole left by the dying coal industry, which sustained the area for more than 120 years. When the mines still ran, graduating seniors could step immediately into well-paying jobs. But in the past five years, two of Delta County’s three mines have closed. Approximately 900 local mining jobs have been lost in the past decade. Ethan Bates, for example, another senior in the solar-energy-training class, is the son of a mine foreman who lost his job when the Bowie Mine outside Paonia closed in 2016. Now, he’ll graduate as a certified solar-panel installer.